A Clamorous Appealing to the Mercy of the Fire: Rest in Peace, Mr. Z

Who was your best teacher? Not your favorite, not the one you loved. The one who made you who you are. Who was your best?

He was mine:

It is with heavy hearts we share word that longtime educator Mike Zelenski passed away yesterday afternoon.

A fixture in the school’s English Department from 1969 until 2012, “Z” – as he was affectionately known – was beloved by students and teachers alike for his prowess in the classroom. Revered for his ability to take challenging subject matter and make it relatable (particularly Shakespeare), any student fortunate enough to take a Z class was better off for it.

A thoughtful colleague and brilliant instructor, he was a man of class, intellect, humor, charisma and compassion. He will be dearly missed by everyone in the St. Catherine’s community.

I wrote about him years ago, and went looking for the essay this afternoon when I heard the news:

One morning he was talking about cadence and sound, writing sound, and he asked you, stopped right in front of your desk and fixed you with that gaze like a butterfly to a sheet of velvet, had you ever read The Bells? You shook your head, terrified he’d laugh at you. He loved Poe, loved Tolkien and Doyle and Asimov and Heinlein and Stoker and others but really loved Poe. So when you said no he half-ran to his desk and pulled out a battered copy and at the top of his lungs he read to you, in a voice that crashed over you like wave after wave after wave, magnificent words like a prayer to the gods to look down at how glorious man had become:

In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,

In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,

Leaping higher, higher, higher,

With a desperate desire,

And a resolute endeavor

Now – now to sit, or never,

By the side of the pale – faced moon.

Oh, the bells, bells, bells!

What a tale their terror tells

Of Despair!

How they clang, and clash and roar!

What a horror they outpour

On the bosom of the palpitating air!

Yet the ear, it fully knows,

By the twanging,

And the clanging,

How the danger ebbs and flows;

Yet the ear distinctly tells,

In the jangling,

And the wrangling,

How the danger sinks and swells,

By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells –

Of the bells –

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells –

Oh, you were lost then. Words never sounded the same.

You had a brilliant college professor for Shakespeare, a scholar known the world over for his work, another man whose classes could only be had by wheedling and scheming and calling in favors. You couldn’t listen to him talk about Hamlet, it was flat and dry and awful. It was dead. You longed fiercely for the graybeard in the tiny high school classroom, standing at the window open on the first warm day of spring, reading Laertes, the age dropping from him like a veil. You pitied the people who had never seen him play Lear for an audience of 25, only 15 of whom were fully awake that early in the school day.

He taught you that writing was not just something that sat there, that you had to make an argument with your words, that you had to be convincing to tell a story well. He taught you that writing was subversive and destructive and political and cruel. When you didn’t convince him he told you so, not intimidated like other teachers were, afraid of “discouraging” you. When he thought you were derivative, he told you so. When he’d read it elsewhere, done better, it didn’t matter that that person was an accomplished writer and an adult, if it was better than you, he told you so. Most of the time that criticism, non-constructive almost-abuse, makes you want to hide under your bed, still, to this day. But he held out the possiblity that one day you would astonish him, and he wanted to see that day. Tearing you down wasn’t sport, it was purpose, and he made sure you knew that, so you tried for him when for everybody else who said the slightest discouraging word you said fuck it, I’ll do something easy I’m good at instead. You learned the concept of loyalty, from the way he refused to let you give up, and no one laughed harder than he did when you pushed back, and won.

A.

3 thoughts on “A Clamorous Appealing to the Mercy of the Fire: Rest in Peace, Mr. Z

  1. joel hanes says:

    “Black” Jack Mcdougall, 9th grade English, Monroe Junior High School, Mason City Iowa
    He demanded that we learn to read and think as adults. He graded mercilessly.
    He had us read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, DH Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner”, Dahl’s “The Great Automatic Grammatisator”, Frankau’s “The Duchess and the Smugs”, Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. He taught us that poetry could be something an adult cared about deeply, and had us read Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” and “Design” and “Mending Wall”, Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, cummings “My Sweet Old Etcetera” and “Olaf Glad and Big”. He demanded that we learn to spell and use twenty new words every week; “egregious” and “facetious” were on the first week’s list, and typical. We diagrammed sentences until we achieved proficiency. He had zero tolerance for bullshit, and ran his classroom with iron discipline and efficiency, treating us as the disaffected rabble of potential outlaws that ninth-graders of course naturally conceive themselves to be. Most of us came to respect him enormously, the way that enlisted men will come to respect a no-nonsense first sergeant.
    Years after he retired, a group of his former students went out to his rural Nora Springs farmstead to Christmas carol this best of teachers. The yard was full of snow drifts, the sky was full of stars; a yard lantern and some spruce trees with Christmas lights outside, and a lit tree indoors and a few yellow windows completed the scene. As we started the second number, McDougall thew open the front door, shouted “Bah! Humbug!”, slammed the door closed, and turned out all the lights in the place — we completed the repertoire in starlight, and left smiling.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Spencer, taught me that being smart wasn’t enough. You had to do the work.
    My junior high school social studies teacher, Mr. Barouh, taught me that history was not a series of events, but a bundle of threads through time and place that led, for example, from civil war to civil rights or isolationism to internationalism.
    I had a whole series of middle aged female math teachers who would probably be college professors or working as quants nowadays, Mrs. Holland, Mrs. Bossert, Mrs. McDonnick, and probably one or two others, who taught me how to think logically and clearly.
    There was Professor Kolenkow who taught freshman physics and pulled me into it by sheer force of vector calculus.
    There were my signals and systems professors, Professors Siebert and Burns, who taught not only theory and application, but about the general nature of growth, change and resonance. It was a breathtaking way to think and has served me long and well in good stead.
    In retrospect, I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the years.

  3. frazer says:

    I’m sorry for the loss of what sounds like a great teacher. You are a living tribute to him, Athenae. I had a high school biology teacher, Mr. Epp, who had this non-science person coming in Saturdays to examine fruit flies under a microscope; a college English professor, Philip Weinstein, who showed me why I loved literature; and a constitutional law professor, Benno Schmidt, whose class I would sit through, grinning, as I mentally raced to keep up with him the whole hour.

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